20th Jan 2010 marks the renewal deadline for the first batch of 70, 000 Burmese, Cambodian and Laotian migrants working in Thailand whose work permits will expire on that day. The next date for the expiry of all the other work permits of migrants from Burma, Cambodia and Laos (approximately 930, 000 officially registered persons) is 28th Feb 2010. This latter date is also the deadline for migrants to express their intention to go through the migrant nationality verification process (for migrants from Burma, must return to Burma and get a temporary passport from the State Peace and Development Council) or be deported. For those 1.5 million plus migrants not currently registered, the crackdown to get them out of Thailand will also begin with intensity, according to Royal Thai Government policy, on 28th Feb 2010.
The Ministry of Labour has yet to announce its policy on renewal of work permits on 20th Jan 10 or 28th Feb 10. The Royal Thai Government has yet to announce what it will do given only 5-6,000 migrants from Burma have gone through the nationality verification process in one year, given the process is failing with lack of transparency and bureaucratic inefficiency, and is simply too expensive for most workers who still don’t know what nationality verification actually is.
Thailand’s Alien Workers Management Committee (AWMC) recommended on 21st Dec 2009 the following: (1) An extension of nationality verification from Feb 28th for two years to allow particularly Burmese authorities to get the process going more effectively; (2) Only those migrant workers who agree to nationality verification shall be allowed to renew their work permits during these 2 years. For others, mass deportation shall start immediately; (3) 28th Feb 2010 deadline for the end of the 15-years year on year migrant registration system must be respected. All eyes turn to the nationality verification process now, and there is no compromise. Thailand will no longer allow illegal migrants after 28th Feb, and all import and export systems for migration must now be formalised between governments (including through the Royal Thai Government’s working with the SPDC as most of the migrants in Thailand are from Burma).
So all eyes are on the Cabinet meeting on Tue 12th Jan where the AWMC recommendations shall either be approved or otherwise modified. Or maybe the decision will be moved back to a later date.
My staff, colleagues and friends are amongst those migrants from Burma whose work permits expire on 20th Jan and the fear, sleepless nights and stress is growing for them. What if their work permits are not renewed, after working and living here in Thailand often for more than 10 years now? Will they have to move underground after 20th Jan? Will they just give up and go back to Shan state or Burma to start a new chapter in their life, even with the situation back home being so poor and they being the breadwinner’s for their families? As usual for the last 15 years, a year on year policy decision from the Cabinet is the answer, which means a precarious existence for migrants, especially those from Burma. But this year is an exception, as the executive decision is usually not this late in coming. If all this is discussed in 12th Jan cabinet meeting, it leaves just 5 working days for 70, 000 migrants to renew permits?
So according to official policy, migrant workers who refuse to go through the nationality verification process will be deported on renewal of work permits date which suggests 20th Jan 2010 is the start of mass deportations, with the next round starting on 28th Feb 10? What do migrants who refuse to go through the nationality verification process think about returning to life in Burma (or for most, Shan or Karen state as those refusing the nationality verification process are often the ethnic minorities from Burma?) What do they think about going underground? What is the policy of the government on mass deportations of two million plus migrants after the international Hmong and Rohingya attention and Abhisit’s desire to show the world Thailand respects human rights? Will the military play a significant role here? But what about employers and the economy? Making up at least 5% of the Thai workforce, the economy is dependent on these workers. So deportation is surely not possible? If deportation does go ahead, what will the government do to ensure it is effective deportation and not the usual corruption-ridden arrest and release process we have all seen for years?
I think the politics of the migrant worker issue in Thailand will soon explode into a fierce but exciting debate. I fear the losers in this debate may once again be the migrants, and lack of transparency and violence the winners.
Andy Hall is the Director of Migrant Justice Programme of The Human Rights and Development Foundation.